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Wednesday, 26 March 2003
Page: 13626

Mr HARDGRAVE (Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) (4:23 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, it is always nice to see you in the chair. I am very pleased, on behalf of Minister Vale—who has some other matters to attend to—to sum up for the government. In doing so I want to pay ongoing tribute to Danna Vale as the minister. I know that today she announced that she is looking at increased penalties for defence medals fraud, which I welcome. There have been a lot of good contributions from members on both sides about matters to do with their local RSL clubs and national service medals, which I will try to comment on as well. Minister Vale has said that penalties for fraudulently claiming defence service will increase fifteenfold under legislation she is looking at—which is very worthwhile. The fact that she is looking to ensure that the good standing of all those who wear medals is made certain is yet another measure by this government to enhance the already high standing of those in the veterans' community and is welcome.

This government and its predecessors over the last eight decades have developed a comprehensive repatriation system that recognises the special standing and the needs of our veteran community. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002 is further evidence of the Howard government's continued commitment to improve the delivery of the compensation and assistance that is available to veterans and their dependants through the repatriation system.

The bill implements a number of minor policy changes that will improve the operation of the repatriation system by removing certain anomalies which have disadvantaged a number of veterans. Other amendments in the bill will improve the delivery of benefits provided under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The bill includes amendments to the VEA to reflect legislative changes to the social security system that will ensure that both systems continue to operate consistently and fairly.

The bill also includes amendments to provide for the continuation of the indexation of the saved payments of child related income support being received by a small number of families receiving a service pension or income support supplement. The bill also includes further amendments to the income stream provisions to prevent the potential misuse of the rules that allow for the early commutation of an income stream and the continued application of a favourable means test treatment for that income stream.

This bill makes amendments to the Pension Bonus Scheme to provide that, in certain cases, a period of membership in the Pension Bonus Scheme that has accrued under social security law will also count towards the calculation of a pension bonus payable under the VEA. Other amendments to the Pension Bonus Scheme will ensure that the pension bonus will more accurately reflect the total amount of deferred pension and the marital status of the pensioner during the period the bonus was accrued. The bill also provides in specified circumstances for the backdating of a partner service pension that is payable to the partner of a veteran.

The remaining amendments will align the compensation recovery provisions applicable to multiple lump sums of compensation with those that apply under social security laws. These amendments are very worthwhile and are supported, it seems, on both sides. We are pleased to see that support from the Australian Labor Party.

Before concluding my comments, I would like to make a number of general observations regarding some of the contributions that have been made today. Each member that has spoken has talked with a great sense of pride about the local RSL and veteran communities in their own electorates. As a local member, I certainly do appreciate the strong work that is being done by the RSLs in the advocacy that they have provided to veterans in my own area. In fact, I often reflect that we are one of only six countries with 100 years of democratic traditions—the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland being the other five. With Anzac Day coming up, it is timely to remind ourselves that we could not make that boast if it had not been for those who were prepared in a time of conflict to stand our ground for us by putting on a uniform and serving their country. As a government, we are always—and have been during our seven years—demonstrating our commitment to veterans and their families. We are always looking for improvements to the repatriation system to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of those who have given so much to this country for so long.

Wearing my ministerial hat, I also want to thank the RSL national executive and the President, Major General Peter Phillips. He talked about Harmony Day last Friday—21 March—and said that it would be a poignant occasion, given the troubled times in world affairs and divisions over our involvement in Iraq. But, as he quite rightly said—and I thank him for his comments—it is all the more reason to make every effort to secure harmony at the grassroots of our society. He conceded that the RSL had historically had some difficulty with multiculturalism as a government policy per se but said that they were very supportive of this government's emphasis on inclusiveness. He made the very telling observation that veterans know well that, in the trenches, colour, race or creed count for little—a mate is a mate—and that is how it should be in the Australian community. Major General Peter Phillips and the RSL should be congratulated for that sort of leadership, and we thank them for that.

I have listened to each of the contributions of other members and I can certainly see some similar points in my own electorate. The Sherwood-Indooroopilly subbranch of the RSL have made a wonderful contribution, for instance, to the local community's knowledge of our national symbols and emblems. They have set up information booths at local shopping centres in the lead-up to Australia Day. They have showcased posters and brochures. They have shown information books on our flag, our floral emblems, our national anthem and much more. John Turner, who is a pension officer with the South-East District RSL Greenslopes Welfare and Advocacy Service based at Greenslopes Private Hospital, deserves a mention. He was awarded a 2003 Moreton Community Achievement Award for his work. According to his mates, his dedication is second to none in helping veterans and their families with claims and entitlements. He conducts his work through much research, travelling, visiting members and networking, all at his own expense. It is people like John who embody the true spirit of veterans all over our country. They never seem to stop giving.

There has been a great deal of applause from the veteran community and the nashos for the Howard government's initiative in introducing the national service medal. I believe the popularity of this medal has exceeded all expectation as the community has embraced, far too many years after the fact, those who served during the times of national service. I understand that the Department of Veterans' Affairs have been somewhat penalised by a move of the branch that has been handling the processing of these medal applications. That move is now complete. In their new environment they will be able to streamline the processing of the applications for these medals more than a little, so I invite those honourable members who have talked about these matters to reassure their local veteran communities of the government's commitment to ensuring that all of those entitled to receive a medal do receive one. In fact, next week I will be offering veterans in my local community a morning tea as we celebrate that service to Australia in the handing out of national service medals to more veterans in my area.

I finish with the observation that the Salisbury subbranch of the RSL in my area have been supported by the state government of Queensland with a 99-year lease on the park at 25 Industries Road, Salisbury, which they use twice a year, on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. It is good to see the state government helping the local RSL in that way, but it has been somewhat tainted by the fact that, even though the park has no toilets, the Brisbane City Council say that they must pay sewerage charges on this park. There might be sewerage and water pipes running past the property but nobody at the RSL is accessing them. So the Brisbane City Council, in their poor spirit of community service, are charging the RSL $500 for absolutely zero use of this sewerage service. That is not in keeping with the work done by both sides of politics at the federal level and at the state level. This is from a Brisbane City Council which, on the day World War I veteran Eric Abraham died—a week ago tomorrow—took down the Australian flag and put up the United Nations flag at Brisbane City Hall. The churlish nature of Jim Soorley is well known. Happily, he will soon be leaving Brisbane City Hall, and we hope the Australian flag will fly there again and on the Storey Bridge, as it should.

Nevertheless, I believe strongly that both sides of politics at the federal level have had an ongoing and long-lasting commitment to our veteran community, and the Howard government has demonstrated its continued commitment to veterans and their families with the initiatives contained in the bill which is before this chamber. I do not believe that anybody could dispute the fact that no group is more deserving of our admiration and our gratitude than those men and women who have served Australia in times of war and conflict. I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.